It’s a very simple piece of advice, but one that any of us should be willing to accept: Know where you come from.
Many an individual has stood on their doorstep, bags packed, hopping a plane to Europe, or somewhere else, in search of… well, something. It’s easy to forget, though, that some of the greatest experiences we ever have end up happening in our own backyard.
That’s just a part of the story you’ll hear from Chef Samuel Monsour, Executive Chef of jm Curley in Boston. And, it’s an awesome one at that! I had the opportunity to touch base with Chef Monsour. We talked a bit about his start in the industry, some of his culinary experiences while trekking through the United States, and one experience in particular that really brought home what it means to be a chef.
Foodie Journal: Did you always have an interest in food?
Samuel Monsour: Yes. Food is, and always has been, the most exciting, engaging and inspiring aspect of my life.
FJ: Can you remember what the first dish you ever prepared for someone else was?
SM: Well, I grew up in a household strong on tradition, so there wasn’t much encouragement for experimentation. My childhood was filled with lessons on my Lebanese heritage through means of cookery. Being taught how to execute my grand mother and father’s recipes wasn’t an option. It was mandatory. So no, I have no exact memory of my first true creation. If I *had* to guess, I’d say it was probably a filthy, over-the-top sandwich.
FJ: What was your first experience in a professional kitchen?
SM: I was thirteen. My parents unexpectedly brought me in to wash dishes at their neighborhood joint in Chapel Hill, NC. It was a Friday night, and their dishwasher had pulled the classic “no call, no show”. That kitchen was [SALT] scary. Several of the cooks were ex-gang members, and they called me lil’ motha[SALT]. I’m talking bloods, the kind that claimed red. They listened to dirty south gangster rap loud. They were fast and precise with knives. They had old-English style script tattoos on their neck. And, their ability to cook was unlike anything I had ever seen. By the end of the night, they had slightly warmed up to me, because I had worked my ass off. Earning a tiny inkling of respect from these badass cats made me feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that I had never experienced. I had always sucked at sports, but working in a kitchen seemed like something I could get good at, so from that point on, I dedicated myself to the trade.
FJ: Do you feel that having had experience prior to going to the CIA helped you in your culinary education? Did you feel like you were “ahead of the game”, so to speak, since you already had some experience under your belt?
SM: Yes and no. Having worked in a professional kitchen for five years prior to attending the CIA, I had confidence that I was choosing the right career path, and more importantly, I had a sense of urgency and a strong work ethic. On the flip side, coming up in my parents neighborhood joint offered me extremely limited product knowledge, very little understanding of proper technique, and barely any exposure to the French methodology. But, that’s why I went to school.
FJ: A lot of chefs seem to do culinary tour, just for the experience itself. A lot go to Europe, or to Asia, but you decided to stay in the U.S. Can you talk a little about some of the experiences, and how the time you spent traveling the U.S. impacted the direction you would end up taking with your cooking style?
SM: I decided to travel America after island jumping in Hawaii with my best friend Devon and his wonderful family, the Espinosas. His parents hailed from the Philippines, and one day while at a pineapple plantation, his father Saldo shared a bit of advice. He informed me that before leaving his homeland, he traveled to as many islands as he could, for years, while still young. Saldo placed high value on actually knowing where he came from before venturing out to the rest of the world. This heart-to-heart literally hit home with me, and after our Hawaii trip, I started what would become an eighteen-month cross-country adventure.
My favorite experiences were blue collared. Dives, greasy spoons, diners, mom & pop spots, communal bbq houses; these places were meccas to me, their food and hospitality stuck to my ribs, and gave me confidence to proudly cook in the style with which I was raised.
My Pop taught me to cook American comfort food, with love, care and emotion. Down south we call that soul food. But, what I learned from my travels throughout the good ol’ US of A is that every region of America has their own version of “soul food”.
Out of the hundreds of memories I have from my journey, I’d really like to share one that is still extremely vivid: I was smack dab in the middle of bourbon country, on a two week road/camping trip with my old man. It was the summer of 2007. We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall on the wrong side of the tracks in Frankfort, KY: Rick’s White Light Diner. As I recall, it was about twenty seats, and Rick ran the show all by himself. He had “a girl come in to help out when it was busy”. White Light was the genesis of a well-traveled, professionally trained American chef. At that time in my life, I wouldn’t have expected to run into a fellow CIA alumnus operating a diner. But, Rick was a rolling stone, just like me. He didn’t make life decisions based upon pretentious expectations. He knew what was important to him, and focused on that, and, with that being said, this was the first time I had encountered a deep-rooted southern chef with a passion for sourcing responsibly. Sure, I was trained to cook “Nouvelle-Southern” at Second Empire, staged at Nana’s, and dined at Magnolia Grill, all in North Carolina. But these were all extremely refined southern restaurants. I had never dined under the umbrella of a southern chef that stayed true to form with soul cookery, added no unnecessary frills or ingredients, but still stressed a huge importance on sourcing local, natural livestock and agriculture. White Light is where I decided to throw away all of my preconceived notions on what paths were “acceptable” for a CIA trained chef. This man’s authentic, weathered charm truly humbled me. He also made a mean crawdaddy pie that I still crave! Rick’s White Light Diner was the whole package for me, then and now, and it brings me great joy to know that Rick is still cooking with all his heart.
FJ: Why settle down in Boston? Mind you, I was born in Massachusetts, and am a total homer, so I’m glad you did! But, always interested to hear why folks decided to make their name here.
SM: From a series of twenty something one-way tickets, Boston was the last stop for me. Simply put, I fell in love with this city the day I arrived. It was what I was adventuring for, so, I’m glad it was my last stop, because I may have severed my travels far too early had it been one of my first stops.
Boston’s a really big town, and coming from the south, I place a lot of value in knowing my neighbors. I love walking anywhere and everywhere, and consistently running into someone familiar, be it a friend, colleague, or shop owner.
The food scene is constantly moving forward, while still honoring its roots. I think that is important, and I support that. Speaking of which, the support in this city is breathtaking. I believe that if creative individuals, in this case chefs, are going to put themselves and their livelihoods on the line to try something new or different, support from their peers is a necessity; that is how we grow. That doesn’t mean that constructive criticism has no place; that is how we learn. Boston encompasses both.
Right now, Boston is offering myself, and other young chefs a platform to learn and grow, in a challenging yet encouraging setting. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of the cultural growth movement that is occurring right now, and it humbles me to be a contributing member of such an incredible community.
FJ: Most everyone that loves food has a food experience or memory from their past that really sticks out to them. What’s yours?
SM: Hanging out with my Pops, drinking beers and chowing down on burgers. It doesn’t matter when, or where, that experience, that moment, whether past, present or future, will always be the pinnacle of food sensory for me.
jm Curley is located at 21 Temple Place, in Boston. Make sure to check out how to keep law & order if you stop in for a visit. I wish more places did this… :)